Sunday, 1 November 2015

Stephen Kotkin, 'Stalin, Paradoxes of Power'

This is a splendid book. Apparently it is the first of a trilogy, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the next one. Highly readable, and brings out the humanity of Iosip Vissarionovich Jugashvili, though it is far from an apology for Stalinism. (I shudder when I think of the apologist for Stalinism I was at times in my youth, but we learn). He has excellent contemporary sources, available of course only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia's first genuine universal suffrage election took place in November 1917. Lenin had been "against the whole notion of elections ", but changed position at this time. The country voted Socialist. The Constituent Assembly thus elected met for one day. Then the Bolshevik members walked out. The next day, when delegates arrived to resume the session, armed guards refused them entry. Trotsky wrote of the Constituent Assembly just before this "We are not about to share power with anyone". Lenin then named the Petrograd Soviet "a higher form of democracy", and later all mention of the Constituent Assembly was erased from Soviet sources. I didn't know any of this, or I have not retained it from what I read in earlier years, and I should have, because I purported to study Soviet history at one time. But I actually think the Soviet history I was taught at university never told us that. Those were different times, and this is a major contribution to the history of the early 20th century.

There are splendid small reminders in this book that also help us to understand the politics of today, such as "Poland did not exist between 1795 and 1918" *ducks for cover*. And not least that Lenin's cook was Vladimir Putin's grandfather! Imagine, as I do, the infant Vladimir hearing at his grandfather's knee tales of the Lenin kitchen!

It seems that Kotkin has understood, as most other historians do not seem to have, perhaps because they are usually not politicians, why Stalin became the ultimately unchallenged leader he did, when he was not the most intelligent, nor the most erudite, nor even the most politically committed or passionate, of the candidates for that role in the burgeoning Soviet Union. When the gamble [of forced collectivisation of the countryside, about which the late Robert Conquest wrote magnificently in Harvest of Sorrow, please read it] met mass resistance and unfathomable ruin, Stalin saw it through to completion". Those are the politicans we remember. The ones who do it ALL.

Kotkin tells us that Lenin's 'Testament', which appeared not to endorse Stalin as Lenin's successor, was used against Stalin, as you might expect it to be. So Stalin picked up his enemies' strength and used it against them, word by word, line by line. And won. This is the counter-intuitive aspect of political life - use your enemies' strength against them. Drew Westen has written an impressive book about just this, called 'The Political Brain'.

Kotkin refers to Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s as "pretzel logic" - both participating in and working to overthrow the capitalist world order. Some might call this running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, and that is a recipe for downfall, though it usually takes a long time. "Pretzel logic" is an expression I first came across in the 1970s when it was the title of a splendid album by Steely Dan, the thinking rockers. But I didn't know what it meant then, and I don't think most people who bought the record did.

Still and all. In 1927, it was said by those who liked to coin such phrases "Moses took the Jews out of Egypt, and Stalin took them out of the Central Committee."

The first official (ie Soviet) biography of Stalin was published in 1927. It was 14 pages long.

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